Is Guilt Selfish?

By Kristance Harlow 11/27/16

Since guilt is cited as a frequent relapse trigger, we need to uncover the layers of internal regret.

A woman's face with several hands pointing fingers at her.
Guilt makes it all about you.

Looking back over journals from different periods in my life, guilt has always been a major character in my evolving chapters of self-destruction. I have heard it said that alcoholics tend to think they are the piece of shit the world revolves around. I don’t know about other people, but that certainly sounded like me. I would engage in negative actions to punish myself for both real and imagined transgressions. In a list of excuses to escape into a boozy fog, guilt was a frequent entry.

Generally speaking, we tend to think of guilt as a wasteful emotion. When I typed "guilt is" into Google's search engine, the first auto suggestion was "guilt is a useless emotion." Pinterest is flooded with inspirational memes telling us to have no regrets and to let go of guilt. Meme after meme gives the same message: “Focus on yourself, forgive yourself.” Guilt is painful, but letting go of it is not easy.

Cognitive psychology says guilt is a mixture of emotions, it’s the feeling that you are the reason something bad happened. R. D. Laing, an influential 20th century psychiatrist, said there were two kinds of guilt: true and false. He ascribed false guilt to what other people think about you and true guilt to be what you know internally about yourself. Freud proposed that humans should build up their defenses to protect against future guilt. It is not as easy as it sounds. How do you defend against something you don’t understand? 

In my experience, guilt is easily mistaken for other feelings. I cannot count the number of times I have been weighed down because of unnecessary guilt trips. I have been afraid of failure, so I felt guilty for not trying hard enough. Fear of other people has often been mixed up with guilt about saying no to social invitations. When my father passed away, my grief was tied up in judging myself for not being able to save him. I have confused being a victim/survivor with guilt, and I know I am not alone in that. Shame has often been thrown in the mix as I struggle to accept my shifting sense of morality and feel bad when I cross murky boundaries between right and wrong.

Guilt is confusing, to say the least. There’s the guilt about something you did or didn’t do. There’s guilt about something you just think you did. There’s guilt that you could have done more to help a situation. Then there is survivor’s guilt, which is the feeling that you’re doing better than another person. Then there is the kind we don’t talk about often, guilt for events completely unrelated to your life.

I have always felt bad about nonsensical things, especially about what happens in other people's lives. If a loved one is let down, I feel guilty. Even more confusing is when they don’t feel disappointed at all about not getting what I thought they wanted, because I still feel guilty. If my friend gets excited about finding the perfect apartment to rent, but the deal falls through, I feel it. If I hear about someone I don’t know overdosing in my home state, I feel it. If I see a stranger crying on the subway, I don’t just feel empathy for their pain, I feel guilt for what happened to cause it. 

If you feel guilty over things that have absolutely nothing to do with you, is that selfish? Yes, it can be. It's selfish because it assumes you could have changed the outcome in another person’s life. It is an issue of control because it is a belief, however subconscious, that you could have controlled what happened better than those who were involved. You are taking away other people’s personal agency and making the story all about you. Recognizing the egocentric thinking involved diminishes the power that guilt wields.

A core symptom of addiction is placing blame, including self-blame. Taking that drink or drug or food (or whatever it is that is part of your disease) after a period of recovery, can trigger a relapse/guilt cycle. We slip and feel guilty that we did, to cope with the guilt we use, then we feel more guilt and use more. When it comes to relapse and guilt, they tend to amplify each other. When someone slips, it can be for a myriad of reasons or seemingly no reason at all. A slip can quickly slide into a relapse with a push from guilt. Reverting to the patterns and behaviors we are trying to move away from is not unusual nor is it inevitable.

Since guilt is cited as a frequent relapse trigger, we need to uncover the layers of internal regret. That is where mental health support and recovery programs come in handy. Preparation for the likelihood of sliding into a pool of self-blame requires proactive measures. Peel that onion and separate real culpability from imaginary retroactive responsibility.

I still feel guilty more than I should, even though I am more conscientious these days. When I cause harm, I attempt to make amends. I try to learn from my mistakes and not cause the same impact again. Guilt can be a useful emotion in small doses—particularly helpful for those of us who have caused harm due to selfish actions. Guilt can be a red flag that maybe I need to review my behavior. That lets me slow down and see if my guilt is disguising something else.

On a practical note, unless someone has a time machine to lend me, there is no possibility that I can change what already happened. Never will I, or anyone else, be able to go back in time and do anything other than what we have already done. Becoming aware of the selfish nature of guilt can serve as a reality check. I am not a superhero and I am not a supervillain. My involvement is not the determining factor in every scenario. Just as I am no more entitled to praise than anyone else, I am also no more entitled to blame.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix